Today’s column offers a choice of topics, legalizing marijuana and breaking up the Republican Party.
As to the first, I’m for it. As to the second, North Dakota Republicans don’t need any help from me.
This seems a safe assertion for three reasons. First, it’s axiomatic in politics that a large majority exacerbates divisions in the party. These became apparent in the last legislative session and even more obvious in the 2020 election campaign. Finally, there are a number of fault lines along which divisions occur. Some of these are ideological, even religious, some involve interest groups, some are regional, and some are deeply personal.
The last of these was the most apparent in the 2020 election, involving Gov. Doug Burgum’s unprecedented intervention – with his checkbook – in local legislative races. That alienated legislators from the start, and it only got worse as the story grew more bizarre with the election of a dead man to a legislative seat and ending – apparently – last week with the state Supreme Court denying Burgum the right to appoint a legislator.
Republican legislators reacted strongly against Burgum’s active, and expensive, involvement in election campaigns other than his own, which made a chasm of the usual crack between governors and legislative majorities. At the same time, it inflamed some statewide elected officials as well. Jeff Delzer, who has chaired the Appropriations Committee, will be back. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem took the Legislature’s side in the open seat controversy, and gloated when he won. The origin of this fault line is Burgum’s success against Stenehjem in the 2016 primary election – which both broadened the Republican base and fractured its almost monolithic grasp on political power in the state.
Another important fault line is ideological, and again, this involves personal feelings. Rep. Rick Becker of Bismarck, leader of the so-called Bastiat Caucus, espouses a "leave us alone" philosophy. His recent challenges to Burgum included applying to become state health commissioner and supporting a write-in candidate in the November election. The latter flopped, but the former garnered widespread attention that focused on Becker’s individual rights agenda. Opposition to a face mask mandate is part of that, but Becker’s agenda goes quite a bit farther and is rooted in laissez faire and libertarian ideology, the first having to do with economics and the second with individual rights.
It’s impossible to know how many votes Becker influences in the House; the best guess is two dozen or so, but the number might have grown in the last election. It isn’t possible to know until roll call votes start accumulating when the session gets going in earnest after Jan. 1.
This wing of the party has at least one sympathizer in the Capitol tower, which houses executive agencies. This is Auditor Josh Gallion, who was reelected in November. A Bastiat candidate lost the party’s nomination for state treasurer to Thomas Beadle, who had represented a House district in Fargo. Beadle’s voting record was among the most liberal in the House, not barring the Democrats, though he pivoted toward Trump in his campaign. Burgum dumped money in Beadle’s campaign, and Beadle won, strengthening Burgum in the tower, though not with legislators and certainly not with the Bastiat caucus.
These are the most personal, and therefore the most interesting, of the Republican Party’s fault lines. Others are regional, even local in nature. Some have to do with specific interest groups, notably coal, oil and wind, which do not form a cohesive energy caucus. Others are agriculture, higher education, public schools, medical and social service providers, even hunters and landowners. Another is what might be called the “main street” wing of the party, which represented this session in Republican leadership. Moderates from the state’s cities represent still another potential fault line. Others are more right-leaning, focusing on such issues as home schooling, right to life, gun rights and the like.
One caveat: Don’t regard this as a definitive list. Fault lines are fluid and can develop around legislative leadership, committee chairmanships and specific legislation, especially budget bills and bills dealing with human behavior.
And another: Remember that the party’s hegemony is paramount to all of these characters, so it’s likely that Republicans will overcome these differences, avoid fracturing and turn the upcoming session into a festival of peace and love, which brings us to marijuana.
There’s a strong libertarian impulse behind the legalization effort. This was apparent in 2018, when U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer’s campaign attracted advocates of legalization, some of them wearing buttons and some of them carrying petitions to get the idea on the ballot. That effort fell short.
The issue has more currency now, since both South Dakota and Montana legalized recreational marijuana use in the 2020 election and Canada legalized it nationally several years ago. There’s a strong push for legalization in Minnesota, too. Success there would leave North Dakota an “anti-pot” island.
There’s talk of legalization among Republican legislators, but there’s hard core opposition too, so pot could be another fault line.
Wouldn’t that be something? Republican hegemony obscured in a cloud of smoke!
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.